For decades, they have peddled ice cream on the beaches of Ventnor, selling frozen treats to generations of families and becoming popular fixtures along the sand.
The city’s ice cream vendors have long been drawn from the ranks of veterans and retired firefighters, who pay $55 a year for licenses to sell. Earlier this month, the city proposed to change that by ending contracts with its 15 vendors and auctioning off a single, larger license to the highest bidder, a system that brings in $85,000 a year to neighboring Margate.
The backlash was swift. Beachgoers in Ventnor, it seems, are nothing if not loyal.
Hundreds of people flooded social media and called city hall with complaints and suggestions. A petition against the change started by homeowners Maryse and Mark Naman garnered more than 12,000 signatures in less than four days.
“Let’s help our Veterans [and] keep it for Veterans only,” one Ventnor resident wrote on the town’s Facebook page amid a slew of similar comments.
Within days, the idea was tabled.
“People did warn me this isn’t something we should touch,” said City Commissioner Tim Kriebel, who proposed the idea as a way to bring needed revenue to a town where most residents have seen their taxes rise steadily for a decade.
“There are 10,000 homeowners in Ventnor who watch their taxes go up every year. This is one way to offset that,” he said.
But after the uproar, he quickly reconsidered. “Because of the pushback we saw, it likely won’t be brought up in the near future.”
The news was personal for Maryse Naman, who grew up in Linwood going to Ventnor beaches. Her father and grandfather are veterans.
Naman, 44, who now lives in Indiana, bought a summer home in Ventnor nine years ago and lives there from June to mid-August with her husband and six kids. Chatting with her ice cream vendor John McLaughlin is an integral part of her shore experience, she said.
McLaughlin has been serving ice cream to Naman’s family for 44 years. At the Washington Avenue beach, Naman’s children beg for treats from McLaughlin nearly every day in the summer.
“He’s a fixture in our lives now,” said Naman. “It’s not just walk up, give your money, get your ice cream, and leave. It’s much more than that and we don’t want that experience to be lost.”
J.J. Mirallegro, who spread news of the potential change online, has been serving ice cream to Ventnor families for 17 years.
Ventnor is not the only town to grapple with how to award ice cream vendor licenses. In the 1950s and 1960s, nearly every Shore town offered licenses exclusively to veterans. But many scrapped that system in favor of a contract with a single vendor. Ventnor, Brigantine, Atlantic City, and North Wildwood are among the holdouts.
In North Wildwood, Mayor Patrick Rosenello says the issue will need to be addressed eventually.
The city recently grandfathered in its 10 veteran vendors, meaning they are the only people who can apply for licenses now. He said the city typically makes between $1,200 and $1,500 per year from selling permits.
“We have not made a decision once they retire what we’ll do at that point,” he said. “When there are no longer enough vendors to cover the beach, we’ll have to have some discussions.”
Ten miles from Ventnor, in Brigantine, the city council unsuccessfully switched to a higher-cost bidding system in 2013, Councilman Vince Sera said.
The beach was split into three zones with separate contracts. Nobody put out bids the following year, Sera said, resulting in no vendors that summer. Police had to arrest anyone selling ice cream near the sand.
Sera said he campaigned for his seat in 2014 by handing out ice cream on the beach for a day with Mayor Phil Guenther. Eventually, Brigantine returned to its original veterans-only licensing. He said the city isn’t changing its ordinance anytime soon.
“We’re keeping it as it is,” he said. “We’re happy to support the veterans.”
For now, Ventnor plans to more strictly monitor sellers after a few veterans engaged in turf wars last summer. A handful set up tents, sold water, and got into public squabbles over territory, forcing the police chief to step in and mediate.
“A couple of veterans were shouting and getting into arguments on the beach,” Kriebel said. “We’re going to look into how police can enforce the ordinance more effectively. … But veterans deserve every provision they’re provided and deserve respect.”